Ride Your Horse Like…a Helicopter Pilot?

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | March 17, 2015

Heidi Nyland Melocco
Credit: Heidi Nyland Melocco
When you ride, each of your hands and legs must be able to act independently for continuous, subtle communication.
Can riding your horse be like piloting a helicopter? Surprisingly, it can. Clinician Julie Goodnight tells how in a recent blog post, where she shares what her dad, a pilot, said about the differences between flying fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. From that, we learn how riding a horse—with finesse—is actually like piloting a chopper.

         Helicopters are more complicated than regular planes, Julie’s dad explained. “You have to make constant adjustments to attitude and altitude with two hands and two feet—each adjusting in a totally different way.” Those adjustments require a lot of subtlety, too: “There’s no room for jerking, no room for sharp reactions.”

         And isn’t that how we want to ride our horses? Julie points out that once you’ve mastered the basics of riding (balance, rhythm, using aids), then you’re ready to begin working on the horsemanship that results in true connectedness, subtlety, and lightness.

         As Julie says, “When you watch a highly trained horse and rider perform or see a helicopter land and take off in the most precarious situations, it’s as if you’re watching a dance between pilot and vessel. Subtle, perfectly timed corrections are at work, and the two are moving as one.”  

         What will advance you toward this worthy goal? For starters, anything that helps you develop an independent seat, such as riding without stirrups.

         Even just thinking about using each of your hands and legs independently—like a helicopter pilot—can help you learn to be a more effective rider.

         “Keep the imagery in mind,” says Julie, and you’ll naturally pilot your horse with more precision.

         Give it a try!

Confident Lope Departs

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | February 10, 2015


Alana Harrison
Credit: Alana Harrison
Are you a free spirit at the lope? Or a nervous Nellie? Use these lope-depart tips for a confident strike-off.
Does loping sometimes make you anxious? If so, you’ve got lots of company. I’ve written articles with scores of horsemanship clinicians over the years, and almost to a person they say loping is the most common fear point for riders.

         I struggled with this myself. I was fearless as a child and young adult, but began to experience nervousness--especially picking up the lope--under the influence of a bullying gelding named Strider

         I eventually overcame that fear. Here are some of the strategies that enabled me to learn to pick up a canter with confidence.

         E-x-h-a-l-e. Steady “belly” breathing (into your abdomen) in general promotes a feeling of calm in the saddle. But here’s an extra tip: As you prepare to ask for a lope, take a deep breath, then just as you’re cueing your horse for the lead you want, let the breath out in one long, steady exhalation. This prevents you from holding your breath—a common fear reaction—plus helps your horse stay calm, too. (As a prey animal, he can sense your breathing—or lack of it.)

         ‘Lean back.’ Nervousness can make us want to lean forward into a lope depart, starting that dreaded fetal crouch. To counter this tendency and maintain an erect and confidence-boosting posture, just think “lean back,” as you ask for the lope. Imagine that you’re sitting in your favorite recliner and are about to push it back. This helps keep your seat sitting down in the saddle where it belongs, and your shoulders over your center of balance—instead of coming forward.

         Look ahead. This seems obvious but is surprisingly powerful. Uncertainty of our horse’s response often causes us to stare down as we ask for a lope--at our horse’s head or the ground immediately in front of him. This traps us in the nervousness of the moment. Instead, look ahead to where you’re going. This draws your attention into the lovely, forward-flowing motion of the lope, plus helps signal to your horse where to go. That way, he focuses on settling into a lope rather than fussing up at the moment of the depart.

         Let ’im lope. As you ask for the depart and for the first few strides into it, be sure to give your horse his head so he can lope. Jitters often cause us to hang on the reins, so we’re saying, in essence, “Please lope—no! Don’t lope!” This frustrates and confuses a horse, plus signals to him that you’re nervous. If you know he’s ready to lope (that is, you’ve prepared him with whatever groundwork or warm-up is necessary to get him mentally “right”), then go ahead and trust him to do so.

         Give these tips a try and see if they don’t help. (Plus check here for more confident-loping advice.)

Tom Dorrance’s Influence…on Me

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | January 22, 2015

Cappy Jackson
Credit: Cappy Jackson
Tom Dorrance was a gentle man who understood animals perhaps like no other. His influence continues to grow.
Tom Dorrance is a thread that’s woven throughout the fabric of my horse life. My first exposure to his training genius came almost 40 years ago, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

It was 1978, and I’d just bought a green-broke 3-year-old Quarter Horse filly. Liberty Belle Reb was an attractive, Rebel Cause-bred sorrel with a sweet disposition and a doll’s head. To further her education, I sent her to Gary Baumer, then a young northern California trainer I knew from our 4-H days together. (He would go on to win the World Championship Snaffle Bit Futurity in 1984 on Plumb Dry, a son of Dry Doc.)

The first time I watched Gary in action with my filly, what I saw surprised me. Unsaddled, Reb was moving back and forth in a round pen, responding to the trainer’s body language reinforced with the coiled riata he held in one hand. The purpose, Gary told me, was to get “connected” to the filly, get inside her head. That was the starting point of training, he said.

“Oh,” I replied. It was all new to me.

Tom ’n Ray. Baumer had picked up the technique from Ray Hunt--Tom Dorrance’s influential protégé, I would later learn. At the time I was just beginning my career in equine journalism, and in 1981 I drove down to central California to watch Ray Hunt gentle a wild colt at the Fresno Livestock Symposium. What he did that day was unlike what most of us in the audience had ever seen before. It was astonishing.

Fast-forward a few years. In 1997, during an early gig freelancing for Horse&Rider, I met Tom Dorrance at his home in Salinas, California, to interview him for a profile. I was—no other way to put it--gobsmacked by him, as awed by his understanding of human nature as by his genius with horses. He made an extraordinary connection with my then 2 ½-year-old daughter, and I could see why people often described him in mystical terms—to his discomfort. “In his mind, he’s definitely not a guru,” I would later write. “He’s simply the horse’s friend.”

For competitors, too. The next year, 1998, I was in Reno, Nevada, to watch Greg Ward claim the most inspirational victory I’ve ever seen. He won his fourth Snaffle Bit Futurity championship in spite of end-stage cancer that would kill him two months later. Ward had incorporated much of Dorrance’s philosophy in order to “train horses from the heart,” as Greg put it. Clearly, I decided, Dorrance’s “natural horsemanship” methods had as much to offer competitive horsemen as they did the novice owner.

In 2003, the same year Dorrance died at the age of 93, I began writing The Riding Family, a monthly H&R column that chronicled my experiences introducing my daughter to horses and riding. Title of the first one? “Thinking Like Tom” (July 2003). In it, I told how I nudged my then 8-year-old daughter to consider the horse’s perspective, as Tom would, to solve a fear problem she was having with a lesson mount. (It worked.)

Sea change. In 2005, I wrote an H&R special report on The Revolution in Horsemanship, a book documenting the rise and spread of “natural” training methods. It delighted me to see the authors crediting Dorrance as the catalyst for the growing acceptance of these noncoercive ways of relating to a horse. “Modern horsemen may not agree on much,” they wrote, “but virtually all of them agree that this revolution began with a cowboy by the name of Tom Dorrance.”

And that brings us to today. My latest Dorrance-related article, “Changing the Way We Train,” is in the February 2015 issue of Horse&Rider, on newsstands now. In it, I look at some of the ways the teachings of this peerless horseman continue to influence the world of performance horse training. Through the eyes of such top professionals as Craig Johnson, Sandy Collier, Jon Roeser, and Sheila Varian, we see how Dorrance’s way of working with a horse’s nature while honoring the animal’s spirit is still penetrating the horse world.

And, as the great man’s influence continues to resonate, I’ll continue to watch it. That’s a thread that’s unlikely to break.

Like Yoga for Horses

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | December 19, 2014

Bending exercises may not be as much fun as riding straight down the trail, but they offer so many benefits (and solve so many riding problems) that they should be a mainstay of your routine. Bending your horse properly is like yoga for him, with many of the same benefits. These include:

Robert Dawson
Credit: Robert Dawson
Bending exercises can do your horse a world of good.
         • Fitness. Bending both strengthens and supples your horse’s muscles, making it easier for him to do everything else you ask of him. Wherever your horse is stiff is where he’ll be the most resistant. Thus bending helps him become “softer” in your hand and to your leg. (It also helps protect him against injury.)

         • Straightness. Ray Hunt said, “I bend my horses to ride them straight.” Bending requires you to have control over your horse’s body; this, in turn, enables you to ride him on a truly straight line when you so choose. (And, of course, when you ride a circle, “straight” means properly bent on that circle.)

         • Calming. Asking your horse to bend and turn directs his feet and busies his mind, helping him focus. It can be a perfect way to “get him back” after a distraction or a spook.

         • Challenging. Bending exercises help you finetune your communication with your horse and develop your skills as a rider.       

There are many ways to bend. To arc your horse properly on a circle, lift your inside rein to draw his nose slightly toward the point of his shoulder; at the same time, press your inside leg at the cinch to help create a bend through your his body. Here’s help in setting up your circle.

         For something different and a bit challenging, try this figure-8-in-a-circle exercise.

         If you find your horse is harder to bend in one direction than the other (most horses are), here’s how to deal with that asymmetry.

         Finally, if your horse tends to lose his bend out the “back door,” bone up on how a horse’s body naturally moves, front and back, and learn how you can overcome some of riding’s most vexing problems.

         One caveat: If your horse persists in resisting bending, be sure to rule out pain or discomfort before you continue.

3 Ways to De-Spook Your Horse

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | November 12, 2014

“Horses are scared of just two things,” goes the saying. “1. Things that move. 2. Things that don’t.”  Funny, yes, but also frustratingly true.

         It’s not horses’ fault, of course. As a prey species, they evolved to stay alive by staying alert--and ready to run to safety. Their motto is, “Go first; figure it out later.”

         Some horses are spookier than others, depending on inborn personalities and past experiences. If your horse is of the more-reactive variety, here are three training strategies to help him go from spook to Steady Eddie.

  Courtesy of Downunder Horsemanship
Credit: Courtesy of Downunder Horsemanship
Plastic-bag work can help your horse become less spooky. First, wave the bag in the air near your horse.
        1. Plastic magic. OK, it’s not actually magic, but desensitizing your horse with a plastic bag can work wonders to dial down his spook-o-meter.

         “A plastic bag is a ‘triple threat’ to a horse—an unknown object that moves and makes noise,” says clinician Clinton Anderson. “That makes it an especially good desensitizing tool.”

         Simply tie a ripped-open bag to the end of a training stick and put your horse in a halter with a long lead. Start by waving the bag in the air around your horse, gradually bringing it closer to him as he becomes accustomed to it.

         Move on to rubbing the bag all over his body, using the stick to scratch him in his favorite spots. Over time, advance to snapping the bag in the air over his back, then finally flapping the bag on his body, and even rubbing his face with it.

         Courtesy of Downunder Horsemanship
Credit: Courtesy of Downunder Horsemanship
As your horse gets increasingly comfortable with the bag, you’ll even be able to rub it gently over his face.
When he reacts, keep at it until he stops momentarily, then immediately remove the bag and give him a break. That’s how he learns the bag won’t hurt him.

         This desensitizing works with horses of any age. Watch as Clinton uses plastic-bag desensitizing with a wild colt.

         2. Clipper calming. Because they’re strange and noisy and potentially snakelike, clippers are a common spook item. Clinician Julie Goodnight recommends an advance/retreat approach to gently desensitize your horse to clippers.

         “It programs relaxation and acceptance into your horse’s behavior,” she says.

         Simply present the clippers to your horse in stages, slowly, removing them promptly each time he shows a sign of acceptance: relaxing muscles, lowering the head, releasing a breath, showing interest in the clippers.

         For details, read Julie’s full step-by-step explanation of clipper desensitizing.

         3. Have a ball. Clinician Tommy Garland says you can teach any horse—especially a timid, anxious, or spooky one—to be calmer and more relaxed by using a large, air-filled ball as a training tool. The ball’s size, shape, and rolling action will startle a horse at first, but they also activate his natural curiosity, which works in your favor.

         Once your horses learns the ball won’t hurt him and he can make it roll by bending a knee, he begins to enjoy rolling it—then following after it and making it move again.

         “I’ve never had a horse that didn’t react this way with the ball,” says Tommy, who used this tool with a hot-tempered, super-spooky Half-Arabian mare. (It changed her so much she went on to win a reserve champion title at a national show.)

         For more how-to, read Tommy’s detailed explanation of his training-ball method.

         Ultimately, if you desensitize your spooky horse to as many stimuli as possible, you’ll be delighted with the results. (The fact that you’re spending all that time with your horse and building the bond of trust and communication between the two of you is part of what make these strategies work.)


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